GENERAL ARTICLES

Brilliant Business

The Dutch had their doubts ...It was a great gamble... But Canadians are proving they can master the ancient craft of diamond cutting

HAROLD DINGMAN July 15 1944
GENERAL ARTICLES

Brilliant Business

The Dutch had their doubts ...It was a great gamble... But Canadians are proving they can master the ancient craft of diamond cutting

HAROLD DINGMAN July 15 1944

Brilliant Business

HAROLD DINGMAN

THE BUILDING looks old, a bit tired perhaps. Nothing glamorous about it. No guards at the doors. No steel grills over its windows. Thousands pass it every day, never guessing that its homely brick walls house a fortune in diamonds and one of Canada’s newest industries.

Inside, up two flights of worn stairs, young men and women (the girls are 16 and up) sit hunched over their wooden workbenches, fingering hundreds of precious gems as casually as if they were shelling peas. But this nonchalance is only skin-deep, for under the watchful eyes of experts these apprentices are learning one of Europe’s most ancient crafts.

The building is the temporary workshop of the Dominion Diamond Cutting Company, an oldestablished firm which, three years ago, ventured boldly into the diamond processing industry and made Canada for the first time one of the world’s seven diamond countries.

Here master cutters from the great diamond centres of Amsterdam and Antwerp, refugees from the Nazi terror, are teaching their coveted craft to more than 70 young Canadians—five of them veterans of this war. The Dutch are withholding nothing from their young pupils. Craft secrets, jealously guarded for centuries and passed from father to son, are being revealed to these young men and women, none of whom had ever possessed or handled a diamond before.

Except for the five ex-soldiers, the apprentices have been carefully recruited from Toronto’s commercial high schools. Training them is slow, patient work. Some make the grade with an ease that has surprised their teachers. Others fail and must make way for more promising apprentices. It is nerve-racking work, for the sawing, cutting and polishing of diamonds demands maximum skill. Every false move, every error is costly—involving the loss of some part of the precious stone.

Nervous Tension

ÎT IS not only the youngsters who have the bad nerves sometimes,” smiles one stocky, bald-headed Dutch cutter who has been processing diamonds for 53 years—ever since he was 13. “In Amsterdam when Joseph Asscher cleaved the great Cullinan diamond (more than 3,U00 carats) he fainted. Many times I have felt the sweat on my forehead.”

But if the apprentices are nervous they don’t show it. They handle the stones with deft indifference. This, I was told, is because their minds are not occupied with the value of the diamonds. They concentrate instead on revealing the lustre and utter beauty of the gems. Like Hazel Grieve. She’s been on the job for three years and I asked her how she could be so casual about the stones she handled.

It. gets to be a habit,” she said. “I was scared skinny at first.”

I asked the value of the stone she was polishing.

The Dutch had their doubts ...It was a great gamble... But Canadians are proving they can master the ancient craft of diamond cutting

'T don’t know,” she said. “None of us know the value of any of the diamonds we handle. And we don’t want to. If we did we’d probably keel over.”

The plant manager, a young Dutch chap not yet 40, told me, “It is good that they know nothing about diamonds. It makes teaching easier because they do as they are told.”

Once this diamond expert owned his own business in Holland. Then came the Nazis and he was forced to flee. Today, though his fortune was lost in Holland, he has no intention of returning to recoup it after the war.

“Two wars in a generation are too much,” he reflects gravely. “Canada has been good and I will stay here. 1 think the others will stay, too.” He proudly refers to his baby daughter as “a new Canadian citizen.”

In 1921, S. Gross formed the company, then known as the Diamond Import Company. For 20 years it contented itself with the routine business of importing finished diamonds and selling them to the domestic market. When the German armies blitzed the Low Countries in May, 1940, the great world-wide diamond traffic was frozen in enemy hands. Scores of Dutch and Belgian diamond craftsmen fled. Within a year eight had been brought to Toronto by the Dominion Company where, in the security of Canada, they were ready to resume their profession—if they could find competent apprentices.

Doubtful at first if Canadians could be trained to equal the diamond cutting done in Europe, company officials sought the help of Toronto’s Industrial Commission. It, in turn, consulted the placement officer at Toronto’s Eastern High School of Commerce. He recommended a small group of boys. Later girls were suggested, and today students from this school handle the bulk of the Dominion’s diamond work.

“They are good—very good,” the plant manager enthuses in his good but pleasingly accented English. “Some are already as good as any cutters we had in Holland or Belgium.”

That he is pleased is understandable, for in the beginning the venture was a gamble. It involved thousands of dollars spent for rough diamonds, for diamond dust, for machinery and factory space. Today that gamble has paid off. The industry is solidly established, ready for expansion and restrained only because of help shortages. In 1943 the Dominion Company produced 35% of all mediumsized diamonds used by the domestic gem trade in Canada. In addition it is turning out industrial diamonds for war work.

Step inside the factory’s workshop! and you are startled at first by the lack of noise. Dozens of machines are running but there is no clatter and bang and roar.

Only the soft whirr of the polishers or the sharp hiss of the saws, running on near-silent motors speeded to several thousand revolutions a minute. Conversation can be carried on in normal voice. Next you are impressed by the informality. Apprentices, mostly girls —and pretty, too—sit on wooden benches under bright lights. Some wear grey smocks, some slacks and sweaters, others natty street clothes. Some faces and hands are streaked with black, oily diamond dust. Here a few girls are softly singing the hit tune, “When They Ask About You.” Another is humming,

“Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet.”

Across the room a young man’s lips are puckered in a whistle you can’t hear.

Later I was told that the rhythmic hum of the machines prompts the workers to sing. It is so, the manager explained, wherever diamonds are cut and polished.

No Chances Taken

TO MY layman’s eye it seemed diamonds were lying loose all over the place—an impression far from right, I was assured. No one seemed interested in a half-dozen stones lying atop a worktable to my right and a few feet away another tiny pile of gems lay glittering in the sunlight.

“Do not be fooled,” the manager smiled. “We have a system so we know where every stone is. No chances are taken.”

What the checking system is he did not say—only that the whereabouts of

every stone is known every minute of every hour.

I was shown a rough diamond. It looked tiny, many-sided, insignificant; a piece of crystal through which I could see easily. Had I not been solemnly assured it was worth many dollars, I would not have been impreased. Hours later, after sawing, cutting and polishing, that stone was shown to me again—a sparkling gem of great beauty ready for mounting in an engagement ring.

These rough diamonds are imported from London, England. The stones come to England by air express from the fabulous diamond fields of South Africa and are then sent to manufacturers in London and Manchester; to Palestine, Cuba, the United States and Canada. Some manufacturing is also done in South Africa.

A Toronto apprentice starts his day by receiving a packet of diamonds. In this folded piece of plain white paper—like that containing a seidlitz powderare 20 or more precious stones. Before sawing begins, the rough diamond is studied under a magnifying glass by one of the experts until he has a sound knowledge of the diamond’s structure and body. Then with sure, steady fingers, he marks a hairline around the pebble with India ink. It is on this line that the diamond is sawed. Drawing it requires great skill. Otherwise there will be unnecessary loss of the gem while it is under the saw.

Marked diamonds are placed in a small brass holder called a dop (a Dutch term). Here it is held in place by a mixture of plaster of Paris and glue. The dop is open at one end and is about the same size and length as an ordinary lead pencil. The plaster mixture is packed into the open end and into this is pressed the rough diamond. This operation takes about a minute, after which the dop is set in a tray while the plaster dries.

Once the diamond is held firm enough for sawing, the dop is clamped horizontally in the sawing machine —a small, electrically operated lathe. The saw blade is made of Phosphor bronze, is paper-thin and whirls around at 6,000 revolutions a minute—so fast it appears to be standing still. This blade has no “teeth” and actually it does no sawing. Instead, a mixture of diamond dust and olive oil applied to the blade saws the rough diamond—for only diamonds can

cut diamonds. These machines run with only a slight hiss and a single operator can supervise about 20 at a time. Depending on the size of the stone, sawing takes from three hours (about the minimum) to 16 hours (two eight-hour days).

Cutting is next and the diamond, now one half of the original rough stone, is rounded and shaped; All rough edges are removed. To do this the half diamond is again fixed to a dop and attached securely to a small lathe where it is set whirling at thousands of revolutions a minute. For cutting, the operator uses another diamond held at the pointed end of a “cutting stick” about two feet long. As the stone to be cut whirls around on the lathe, the diamond in the cutting stick is pressed against it. This shapes and rounds the half diamond. It also produces diamond dust, which is caught in a small container placed beneath the stones.

Polishing is the final operation. For this a scaife is used. The scaife (another Dutch term) is a cast-iron wheel 12 inches in diameter and seven eighths of an inch thick. Each polisher has one in front of him on his work bench, atop which it spins something like a roulette wheel—only faster—at 3,000 revolutions a minute. Being cast-iron, the scaife is naturally porous, but it is made more so by scouring it with sandstone. It is then impregnated with diamond dust.

Polishers place the rounded diamonds into dops. Each dop is gripped firmly by a “tong”—an oddlooking gadget which holds the diamond so it can be pressed against the whirling, diamond-dusted surface of the scaife. The “tong” is hand-manipulated. Girls assigned to polishing handle the “tongs” with quick, jerky motions. The diamond is pressed against the scaife for a second or so, then lifted. The polisher squints at it through a magnifying glass, then presses it back against the spinning scaife.

Diamond “Faces”

ACTUALLY, she is placing the facets on the L diamond. These are the tiny gleaming faces which give the stone its sparkle. Each girl specializes in a certain number of facets. When these have been finished she passes the stone on down the line for further treatment. On the medium-sized stones produced in Toronto, a maximum of 58

facets are fixed—a delicate operation

requiring great skill, and several polishing operations.

Finally the finished diamond is boiled in a special preparation which removes the accumulated dust. The gems are then sorted for size and color and are ready for mounting by the jewel trade.

How much does a diamond apprentice earn? Wages were a problem at first since Canadian standards of living, in war or peace, are far higher than those of either Belgium or Holland. Diamond workers here receive a basic wage plus a bonus on the number of stones they produce above a fixed amount. Skilled apprentices are making $45 a week and up. One 18-year-old girl is making consistently as much as $75 a week. An apprenticeship lasts three years but diamond workers are under constant supervision even after they reach the end of their apprenticeship.

The years since the industry started in Canada have witnessed remarkable achievement. The number of apprentices has grown to more than 70 and there are now 95 employees in the Toronto company. Last year the company’s payroll was $208,000. This represents all new wealth to Canada because, prior to 1940, Canadian currency for diamonds was exported to Europe without any payroll benefits at home—except for a few clerks working in small diamond import offices. (There are a number of importing firms in Montreal and Toronto. These supply 65% of the small gem trade and part of the industrial trade.)

Besides learning the gem trade, Canadians are also learning to manufacture industrial diamonds. This is an important war work at the Dominion Company—a branch of their industry they are not willing to discuss for publication. It is admitted, however, that the refugees have developed a new type of tool to speed up war material production.

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Industrial diamonds in the rough are identical with the stones which later become gems. For industrial purposes, however, the rough, instead of being sawed and cut for jewellery mounting, is shaped to fit steel tools.

The most familiar finished diamond used by the gem trade is the mediumsized one with 58 facets. It is known as a “brilliant.” This is used in the average engagement ring purchased in Canada. There are, of course, variations in shape, depending on the fashion of the moment or the shape of the rough diamond. Some of the larger well-known shapes are the “emerald” and “baguette” cuts, square and rectangular in outline; the “pendeloque” which is pear-shaped; and the “marquise” which is like a tiny boat pointed at both ends.

The diamond is the niost fascinating and probably the most little-understood of all gems. Chemically speaking, it is pure carbon— the same material as lampblack, soot or graphite. But it is crystalline carbon formed under terrific heat and pressure in molten lava. It Was known and recognized in earliest times, the first written word of it appearing in the Old Testament in the Book of Exodus, which dates back to 1700, B.C. There you will find a description of the breastplate to be Worn by Aaron as high priest to the people of Israel.

(28:17) “And thou shalt set it in settings of stones, even four lows of stones: The first row shall be a

sardius, a topaz and a carbuncle; this shall be the first row.

(: 18) “And the second row shall be an emerald, a sapphire, and a diamond.”

Peninsular India was the only known source of diamonds for 1,000 years or more and these went out to the then known countries of the world m caravans over bandit-mfested routes

About 600 A.D. some were found in Borneo but it was an unimportant discovery and no new fields were found until the Brazil discovery in the 18th century. In 1726 miners panning the rivers for gold gathered around their campfires to play cards. As chips, or counters, they used small, bright pebbles. These, it turned out, were diamonds.

There followed a tremendous boom, but after producing about 16,000,000 carats, Brazil’s diamond production fell to about 20,000 carats a year and the country is no longer considered an important diamond field.

South Africa is the greatest producer of all times. In the last 70 years the South African fields have produced 185,000,000 carats, three quarters of all the diamonds owned by the human race. The original find which led to the discovery of the great South African mines is credited to the child of a poor man’s family. While playing on the banks of the Orange River, the child picked up a shiny pebble and polished its surface with the paste of cow dung. A neighbor, Schalk van Niekerk, offered to buy it. “But it is only a pebble,” said the boy’s mother. “You may keep it.”

The pebble, though Van Niekerk didn’t know it at the time, was a 21carat diamond. An even greater discovery was made in 1869 by a Griqua shepherd boy near the Orant e River and again Van Niekerk was involved. The stone was a superb white diamond weighing (uncut) 83.5 carats. Van Niekerk bought it for what seemed a fabulous price to the shepherd—500 sheep, 10 oxen and a horse. Eventually that diamond became known as the Star of South Africa and was purchased by the Earl of Dudley for a reputed 25,000 pounds.

Some of the world’s most famous diamonds include the Koh-i-noor, which weighs about 106 1|6 carats. Tradition states it was first found in the Godavari River in India, four or

five thousand years ago. It is now in the jewel room of the Tower of London. And there is the Hope Diamond of 44f'2 carats. Thought to have been discovered in an old Indian mine, it was sold in 1668 to Louis XIV. Its present name derived from Henry Thomas Hope, a London banker who bought it in 1830 for 18,000 pounds. In 1911 it was bought by E. B. McLean, Washington, for a reputed 60,000 pounds. And there is the Orloff which weighs 194 % carats. It is said to once have been an eye in an idol in a Brahmin temple at Sriranyam, India. A French soldier stole it and escaped to Madras. Prince Orloff of the Russian court bought it for Catherine the Great for a price said to have been 90,000 pounds.

It was mounted in the Russian Royal Sceptre and is now a part of the treasures of the USSR.

Canada, of course, is not likely to be asked to cut such diamonds. Most of the production in the Toronto plant is of 4-pointer to quarter carat stones. A ! carat has 100 points and a 4-pointer is therefore 1/25 of a carat. However, the Dominion Company has manufactured some larger stones.

In July of this year plans called for the building of a new factory—the first of its kind in Canada. Experts estimate a payroll of 500 persons can be attained. The young Canadians who are now apprentices will, they believe, become the equals of Europe’s master craftsmen and in the postwar world will be expected to maintain the new craft in international competition. Already, prominent jewellers say, the diamonds manufactured in Canada are superior in color and brilliance to anything ever imported before the war.